Should Virginia governor Ralph Northam resign? Late last week, when images surfaced from Northam’s medical school yearbook showing students dressed in Ku Klux Klan hoods and blackface, the outcry was immediate and, on progressive Twitter, unanimous: Yes. Or, as the trending hashtag stated: #NorthamShouldResign. Most of the Democratic party leadership in the state of Virginia, as well as Democrats running for president in 2020, joined the chorus demanding Northam step down.
Northam responded by doing what pols in crisis have long done: he held a press conference to apologize and, he no doubt assumed, quell the controversy. But as Northam quickly discovered, his 20th-Century response to a 21st-Century scandal only made things worse. During the press conference, he backtracked from his initial admission that he had been pictured in the photo and instead confessed to having worn blackface on another occasion as part of a Michael Jackson. Of course, the press conference was live-tweeted; as HuffPost gleefully headlined its story, “Ralph Northam Delivered a Wild Press Conference and Twitter Tore it Apart,” as if Twitter itself were a player in the drama. Which, in a significant way, it was. Whatever Northam’s ultimate fate, it will be decided in part by the platforms on which the drama played out.
Talking to NPR’s All Things Considered, Rep. Karen Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, summarized many people’s feelings when she said: “The governor has absolutely no credibility. One day he comes out and says, I apologize for the photograph that I was in,’ and the next day, he goes, ‘Well, no actually, it wasn’t me, but I actually did do blackface that same year, but it was because I was imitating Michael Jackson, and I’m sure you see the difference between the two.’ No, we don’t.”
But shouldn’t we be able to see the difference between a three-decades-old choice to dress as a popular pop star for Halloween and a deliberate effort to mock the country’s violent, racist past by dressing in the robes of the KKK? Recall that the 1980s were the decade that produced this horrible movie, so Northam wasn’t alone in making wildly insensitive choices. Ten years ago, we would have advanced to this point in the discussion about now, three days after the initial revelation.
But thanks to the power of social media to move the goalposts in nearly every political discussion, we’ll never have the time to ask that and other reasonable questions about Northam’s fitness to stay in office. The media cycle demands immediate reactions and immediate decisions, and, for some reason, an increasing number of politicians on both sides of the aisle have decided that they have no choice but to play by its rules. Not Northam—at least not for now. He is brazening it out.
Social media enthusiasts are quick to celebrate the way platforms like Twitter undermine traditional gatekeepers in the media by allowing ordinary people (and the journalists who love to quote them) unfettered access to others’ attention and the ability to share their opinions. And there have been times when this power was used for good (during natural disasters or emergencies, for example). But in the political sphere, more often than not, social media serves as a dangerous accelerant: recall the smirk seen ‘round the world after Covington high school students were filmed in an altercation with protestors on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a few weeks ago. Within hours, one white teenager’s face had become the symbol of male oppression, racism, and hate—incorrectly, as it turned out. Only after full video footage of the encounter emerged were many observers forced to walk back their initial reaction to the events (many others didn’t bother, of course, as they had already moved on to the next political Twitter dumpster fire).
As we move into the era of “deep fakes,”, and as evidence mounts of the ease with which misinformation and lies spread on platforms like Twitter, we should encourage caution and deliberation during times of scandal like the one unfolding in Virginia. You don’t have to like a single one of Northam’s policies to want to give an elected official time to offer a thorough explanation for his or her behavior—especially if that behavior occurred long before he or she held office.
The state of Virginia will get another chance to do just that. Several news outlets are reporting that Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, a possible replacement for Northam should he step down, was accused of sexual assault in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention. As progressive Twitter taught us during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the immediate and politically correct response would be to denounce Fairfax because #BelieveAllWomen. So far, however, both the Washington Post and a local Virginia news outlet state that although they knew about the allegations, they haven’t been able to corroborate them.
While their caution is to be applauded, their blatant partisanship is not—such standards evidently didn’t stop the Post from making uncorroborated allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh a front-page story last year. As Northam’s (and possibly Fairfax’s) political fate play out on social media, it’s clear that we are at risk of replacing “trust, but verify” with “tweet, and destroy.”